Meaningful Things

One of the things I keep myself busy with these days is putting together ThingsCon15, a two-day conference on everything IoT, hardware, and its future. I’m pretty excited for the second installment after we launched it in May 2014 for the first time. We managed to once again get a thrilling line up of clever minds to share their ideas with us, a brimming and diverse program full of talks and workshops – and a wonderful community to join us for two days in May. It’s a pleasure to see it all come together once again – and it’s a blessing to work with such a focused and fun team one more time.[[MORE]]

ThingsCon very quickly developed a character and an sense of community on its own – unsurprisingly as the audience and speakers very happily engaged in shaping the program and spirit of the conference. And that’s a good thing. Just six month after ThingsCon Berlin we had our first community-organized satellite taking place in Amsterdam. I actually believe that’s pretty much the best ting that can happen to an indie-conference – to be taken over and owned by the community it is tailored for as soon as possible.

Design & Meaning

Now, with ThingsCon15 well on its way, I spent some thoughts on where I see this going, and what actually drives me about it. I remembered an inspiring discussion I had with our good friend Marcel Schouwenaar last year. He pointed out how designers and entrepreneurs have the great chance (and duty) to come up with meaning for their products (You should check it out!). That struck me. Meaning is something that goes beyond technical achievability, even beyond usability, design, or vision. Meaning takes into account the context and the impact of a product – and that’s crucial. Being aware and deliberate of the context we’re working in can give us a highly capable understanding of the notion of ‚building products‘. It pushes us to ask: What does the world we want to live in look like? What can we build to get there? And does your product help us along the way?

Design for meaning can give also some very refreshing answers to the everlasting question of where hardware is going. It can spin the old story of classic buzzwords like home automation, transport, wearables, smart cities, or smart energy. Don’t get me wrong – these undoubtedly are the most driving paradigms when it comes to ‚the future of IoT‘ we discuss these days. And that makes a lot of sense, since there is tremendous potential to be found in these areas, once combined with low-energy systems and computing power.

My point is that the term meaning can help us to be a bit more ambitious about our answers here. To get out of the old rut of chasing fancy and disruptive IoT ventures and embrace the full potential we’re actually looking at here. Understanding the context we’re working in allows us to question it, to reframe its reference and its focus. And often the result here is not fancy, but seemingly boring – and all the more significant. (Amazon Dash Button, anyone?)

Discussing perspectives

I am looking forward to have these kind of discussions at ThingsCon. To get away from the tech specs and think about the society and the future we’re getting ourselves into. What does it really do to our world if everything, including ourselves, is constantly monitored and measured by our own things? What does it mean for us if there’s a global battle around disruption, data, and consumption by companies right in our living room? What happens if things go wrong or are way ahead of us? Or – even worse? – if we’re in-between things?

In some ways, the dystopian version is already here with IoT. People can’t turn their fucking house lights on. The clocks think they’re in the next time zone over. The thermostat has 404’d and the doorlock system’s getting too many hits so you can’t get inside your networked house that’s gone insane anyway.

Warren Ellis most certainly will have some thoughts to share on that matter, as will Bruce Sterling, Scott Smith, and many others.

I am looking forward to learn about the Rural Spark, a decentralized, bottom-up and smart energy network to tackle the lack of safe and clean energy for about 400 million people in rural india. And to explore what this has to do with design, research, and field work. Jan Belon will join us to share how and why they came up with it:

It’s these kind of discussions that I find incredibly inspiring for they seem to open up the context in which we might tend to think concepts like IoT or design or entrepreneurship. Last year, the wonderful Bilal Ghalib sketched a similar point of view when he shared his take on DIY-culture, innovation and impact in a very global context. It’s truly inspiring and humbling to get this sense of potential for what we call hardware and IoT (or whatever, actually), once we reflect on the terms we think it in.

ThingsCon and beyond

This is why I am so excited for ThingsCon15 – and its why I think that this discussion will certainly go way beyond just one event in Berlin. ThingsCon is but one context to have it andI would love to continue swapping it in more projects to come for sure (one of them might be the amazing Global Innovation Gathering which is taking place at re:publica in Berlin just before ThingsCon). It would be great to have you with us – either on-site, online, or in whatever context you prefer. What do you think?